Thinking Beyond Boundaries:
Contemporary Challenges to U.S. Foreign Policy
American Society and Its Military
In his 1961 farewell address, President Eisenhower voiced concerns about a future in which a powerful military-industrial complex would dominate policy to the detriment of American interests. According to Ike,
[The] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience… [We] must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.1
Although Eisenhower’s concerns about rapid technological and industrial changes were new, his broader concerns about the relationship between a liberal society and its military were not. In fact, American statesmen have debated how to raise a military that is both effective in its military tasks and subordinate to its civilian political leaders since the founding of the American republic.
Much has changed since Eisenhower’s speech five decades ago. The Cold War has ended, and a new security environment has emerged. The nation has abandoned its long-standing commitment to a military composed of citizen-soldiers, instead instituting an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973; at the same time, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen immense increases in the numbers of civilian contractors supporting military operations around the world. In the face of these changes, Ike’s concerns about undue military influence have persisted and possibly even increased.
Many questions remain. Is the military-industrial complex a problem today? How should we field an Army for the republic? Do senior military officials have too much influence over foreign policy decisions? These, and many other questions, must be answered in order for the U.S. to adequately respond to the many contemporary challenges facing U.S. foreign policy.
Is the Military-Industrial Complex a Problem Today?
Since the founding of the American republic, U.S. statesmen and policymakers have been concerned that differences between the nation’s military and the liberal society that it served could, if left unchecked, undermine society itself. In fact, the framers of the U.S. Constitution took great care to establish a political system that would minimize the Republic’s reliance on standing military forces, which they thought would inevitably become “engines of despotism.”2 Along with other institutional checks, the framers hoped that reliance on a non-permanent, citizen-based militia system would ensure that the nation’s soldiers roughly would share “the same spirit as the people” while still providing an adequate force to meet its security needs.3
For much of America’s history, the country heeded the framers’ advice and maintained only a small, standing military, rapidly demobilizing its forces following periods of conflict. Following World War II, however, political leaders chose to maintain a larger, permanent military bureaucracy in the face of the perceived Soviet threat. It was in this context that President Eisenhower issued his concerns about the influence of the nation’s standing military and its burgeoning arms industry. To Eisenhower, this unprecedented phenomenon demanded an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to ensure “the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense…so that liberty and security may prosper together.”4
When the Cold War ended, many political leaders hoped that a new era of peace would replace the ever-present threat of large-scale nuclear war between the two superpowers. Militarily and economically, the United States stood alone, facing no obvious peer competitor on the global stage. In this new international environment, some commentators speculated that the U.S. would be able to drastically reduce both its conventional military forces and its nuclear stockpiles. Nevertheless, the rise of transnational terrorist organizations, the emergence of failed states, and the increasing competition for regional political and economic influence have led to rapid military deployments around the world. In this new environment, U.S. military expenditures have grown more than 119 percent since September 11th, 2001. Even if we exclude the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defense budget has grown more than 68 percent over this time. In fact, in 2010 the U.S. government spent more in real terms on defense than at any point since WWII, with expenditures that accounted for 48 percent of the world’s military spending and exceeded $700 billion.5
Many critics have argued that Eisenhower’s warning is as apt today as ever. According to political commentator William Pfaff, for example, profit-seeking arms corporations and generals intent on growing the military and its influence now “dominate Congress, as well as an inexperienced administration.”6 Since legislators themselves often stand to benefit by bringing jobs and defense contracts home to their districts, budgets often include programs that benefit a legislator’s re-election chances at the expense of national security. Consequently, many argue that the large U.S. defense budget does not, in fact, adequately develop military forces that are prepared to defend against authentic threats; instead, they claim that much of the defense budget is wasteful and that it threatens the nation’s economic health, especially in an age of economic instability.
Others counter that the Military-industrial complex is less influential and menacing than it appears at first glance. Although the $700 billion price tag for defense seems startling, military spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen from 9.4 percent in 1961 to only 4.7 percent in 2010.7 Moreover, a large portion of those expenditures cover rising personnel costs in the form of higher salaries, healthcare costs, and retirement benefits; this development means that even less money goes directly to arms corporations. And although the US spends more on its military than any other nation, no other nation assumes the US’s global responsibilities for security.
It remains unclear, however, whether today’s defense programs do, in fact, constitute the “balance in and among national programs” and the “balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future” of which Eisenhower spoke.8 Does military spending trump other domestic priorities? Is that spending targeted in such a way as to address real and emerging threats to our national security? Are institutional changes necessary to restore the balance between security spending and domestic programs?
How Should We Field an Army for the Republic?
At the same time that the nation was re-organizing industry and technology to deal with Cold War threats, it also had to determine how to recruit and retain military personnel. These dramatic post-war changes in U.S. military capacity sparked a now-venerable debate between Samuel Huntington and Morris Janowitz about how these changes would, and should, effect U.S. civil-military relations, military recruitment, and military effectiveness.
Huntington and Janowitz agreed that, at the start of the Cold War, an ideological divide had emerged between a pragmatic, conservative military and the liberal society that it was designed to serve.9 They disagreed, however, on whether these differences were necessary to maintain an effective military. Huntington argued that they were. He believed that attempts to change the culture and composition of the officer corps would ultimately have deleterious consequences for military effectiveness; instead, he claimed that civilian leaders must tolerate military conservatism, especially during times of conflict, while promoting military autonomy and norms of military professionalism. Janowitz, on the other hand, argued that civilian leaders should take steps to change both the composition and culture of the military so that it could better fulfill the political needs of its civilian masters. If this gap were to remain too large, the military would become unresponsive to civilian needs and political dictates. Although the military might remain militarily “effective,” it would do so only by compromising the liberal, democratic values it was intended to defend.
The upheaval of the Vietnam War and the subsequent introduction of the All-Volunteer Force in 1973 have served to exacerbate this debate and have led some to voice concerns about the representativeness and diversity of the U.S. military. Although the citizen-soldier concept may have been more an ideal than a reality for much of the 19th century, it did play a central role in shaping the armies that the Unites States fielded in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam. Since Vietnam, however, our military has consisted entirely of volunteers. While this method of manning the force has many obvious benefits, especially in the training and equipping of the force, many have argued that it has created a military that is less representative of society than ever before.
Although recent research has demonstrated that the U.S. military – or at least the Army – is more representative and politically diverse than was previously thought, there still are several areas of potential concern.10 Among all ranks, women and some minority groups are significantly under-represented. In fact, women still are barred from serving in many combat roles. Additionally, gays and lesbians only recently have been granted the opportunity to serve openly after almost two decades under the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. Concerns about representativeness among the senior ranks of the officer corps are even more pressing. The U.S. officer corps consists primarily of white males; women and minorities are under-represented.11 Moreover, U.S. officers, especially the most senior officers, predominantly identify themselves as both conservatives and Republicans, though their attitudes and political affiliations are not particularly extreme or far right.12
Additionally, over the last two decades, many pundits and political commentators have asserted that the military and society are dangerously disconnected from one another. Highly public disagreements over social policy and military deployments during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have led many to assert that the ‘Civil-Military Gap’ has grown. In other words, they argue that members of the military now hold fundamentally different attitudes about social values and foreign policy than do their civilian counterparts, either because individuals self-select into the military or because of military socialization processes. Others claim that these differences are the result of a decade at war in which only a small fraction of society has borne the sacrifice. Indeed, the American people have less direct contact with the U.S. military than ever before; less than 1 percent of American families have a family member serving on active duty.13
Although some argue that the existence of a ‘Civil-Military Gap’ implies that military values have moved away from those of the society it serves and others claim that society simply is apathetic and ignorant of military sacrifice, most observers concede that something is out of balance. How can we best connect our military to the society that it serves? Is the All Volunteer Force the best way to recruit and retain our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines? Can the expansion of ROTC programs at elite universities bridge the gap? Does society need to insist on a more representative force, or will these actions only serve to undermine military effectiveness?
Do Senior Military Officials Have Too Much Influence on Foreign Policy Decisions?
Another area of concern for contemporary civil-military relations involves the question of what the appropriate relationship between senior civilian and military leaders should be during wartime. A number of public civil-military conflicts during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have reignited debates about the military’s proper role in the policymaking process. Although some scholars, pundits and policymakers have argued that these conflicts stemmed from the improper influence of a military that increasingly is detached from the society it serves, others claim that they instead have resulted from civilian ignorance of the military and its mission. President Obama’s immediate firing of General Stanley McChrystal over inappropriate comments that members of McChrystal’s staff made about civilian leaders – including U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and Vice President Joe Biden – once again brought these debates into sharp relief.14
The existing scholarly work on civil-military relations typically is divided into two groups, each prescribing a different division of labor for wartime civil-military relations. ‘Professional supremacists’ argue that effective civil-military relations during wartime depend on granting expert military leaders sufficient autonomy to accomplish their missions, while minimizing micromanagement from non-expert civilian leaders.15 In contrast, ‘civilian supremacists’ maintain that successful wartime policy depends on the strict implementation of civilian strategic guidance, even if the military disapproves of those civilian decisions.16 After more than a decade at war, U.S. policymakers again must consider important questions about the division of labor between civilian and military leaders as they prepare to face contemporary challenges to U.S. foreign policy. Are the mechanisms that throughout American history have ensured civilian control of the military, and held political leaders responsible for decisions to use military force overseas, still operating properly? How can we best integrate military expertise and advice into foreign policy decision making without sacrificing civilian control and responsibility for these decisions?
This paper has attempted to identify some of the most critical debates in contemporary civil-military relations, while focusing on three broad areas: 1) the influence of the Military-Industrial complex, 2) concerns about the differences between the military and society, and 3) debates about the appropriate role of military advice in the policymaking process. Although there have been many developments in U.S. civil-military relations since President Eisenhower issued his warning fifty years ago, Eisenhower’s desire that “security and liberty may prosper together” remains timeless. If the United States is to effectively meet contemporary challenges to U.S. foreign policy, it must find a way to heed the spirit of Eisenhower’s warning.
Cohen, Eliot A. Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. New York, NY: Free Press, 2002.
Desch, Michael C. “Bush and the Generals.” Foreign Affairs 86, No. 3 (May/June 2007): 97–108.
Deresiewicz, William. “An Empty Regard.” The Washington Post (20 August 2011).
Dunlap, Jr., Charles J. “The Military-Industrial Complex.” Daedalus 140, No. 3 (Summer 2011): 135-147.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. “Military-Industrial Complex Speech.” 17 January 1961.
Eisenhower, Susan. “50 Years Later, We’re Still Ignoring Ike’s Warning.” The Washington Post (16 January 2011).
Feaver, Peter. Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Hastings, Michael “The Runaway General.” Rolling Stone (22 June 2010).
Huntington, Samuel. The Soldier and the State. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1957.
Jaffe, Greg. “On the Home Front, Reminders of the Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq Come in Small Doses.” The Washington Post (20 August 2011).
Janowitz, Morris. The Professional Soldier: A Social And Political Portrait. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1960.
Kohn, Richard H. “The Erosion of Civilian Control of the Military in the United States Today.” Naval War College Review 55, No. 3 (Summer 2002): 8–59.
Pfaff, William. “Manufacturing Insecurity.” Foreign Affairs 89, No. 6 (Nov./Dec. 2010).